From November 1, garbage segregation has been commenced nationwide. This effort is long overdue and laudable. However, like many efforts in Sri Lanka, it has not been completely thought through, and therefore, will be fraught with issues. The first of these is that no one is quite sure what constitutes biodegradable and non-biodegradable waste. Kitchen [...]

The Sunday Times Sri Lanka

Garbage segregation: Don’t let it become one big mess


From November 1, garbage segregation has been commenced nationwide. This effort is long overdue and laudable.

However, like many efforts in Sri Lanka, it has not been completely thought through, and therefore, will be fraught with issues.

The first of these is that no one is quite sure what constitutes biodegradable and non-biodegradable waste. Kitchen wet waste is obvious, but what about empty sugar sachets from take-out meals, or tissues on which one has blown one’s nose? These two items may be paper, but they cannot be recycled as paper with sugar crystals in them or nasal mucous. These belong in what is called residual waste. This is what is left after you have separated everything that can be recycled. Residual waste includes soiled packaging, nappies and sanitary towels, cotton wool, plasters, bandages, rubber, leather as well as things such as brushes and pens. Residual waste is what the municipality says it will collect.

What about empty milk cartons, which are a soft cardboard, but have a plastic lid on them? Where do they go? No one has been told that they should a) be rinsed before disposal and b) the plastic lid torn from it before the carton goes into the paper waste and the lid to the plastic waste.

What about empty pill cards, partly plastic and partly metal foil — where do they go? Is this residual waste too? And CFL bulbs, electronic waste, how are we supposed to dispose of these?

This leads me to the second issue that I want to raise. The information provided and the training given to garbage collectors is woefully inadequate. I have been handed a flyer which tells me that from November 1st, 2016 that unsegregated waste will not be collected by the municipality. It tells me to compost waste. It does not list what can be composted, or recycled. It does not tell me what I should do with biodegradable waste if I live in an apartment and have no space to compost. It does not tell me to wash empty milk cartons before chucking them with paper waste. The flyer tells me it will collect residual waste but does not detail what residual waste is. In contrast, see the details provided by the Drammen municipality in Norway at

If composting is not carried out properly, the pits can become breeding spots for disease carriers such as rodents, flies and mosquitoes. I know this personally, because I tried, and was overrun by rodents in days. Training and guidance are needed urgently.

The flyer tells me that a tractor will collect the recyclable wastes but I have no idea on which day of the week this tractor will come. There is a blank space on the flyer for the date, which has not been filled. The garbage collectors have not been trained adequately, so they are sorting through waste and returning soiled garbage bags, in which wet kitchen waste has been collected. A concerted awareness campaign for the general public, and targeted and repeated training programmes for the garbage collectors should have preceded this process. Instead, in post war Sri Lanka, what we have been offered are threats with the army stepping in.  (The Sunday Times, November 6).

This leads me to my third issue. Many of these garbage segregation measures have been imported from western temperate countries. In these countries, if wet garbage is not collected, it does not cause a health hazard as it does in a tropical humid country such as ours, where decomposition is rapid, attracting disease carriers. In Colombo, people have a habit of leaving siri-siribags or black bags filled with their garbage outside their gates, on the ground, without the protection of a bin. All it takes is the interest of a passing animal (feral dog or cat, civet or crow) for the bag to be ripped and its contents to spill onto the road, creating an unsightly, smelly mess, which rapidly becomes a health hazard. Even when undamaged, these bags pose a health threat, as with the first rain, the slightest wrinkle on their surfaces produces tiny ponds of water that serve as mosquito breeding spots. In addition, when garbage collection is reliant on the whims of the garbage collectors, things can spiral out of hand. I remember one particularly grim time over Christmas a few years ago, when the garbage men, after the excesses of their Christmas bonuses and the lack of fuel to run their lorries, did not collect garbage in Polhengoda Road for ten days. For garbage segregation to work, a finely-tuned and smoothly operating collection system is also essential.

The other day it turns out that the police and the garbage men decided that in my apartment complex, kitchen waste could not be collected because it had used lunch sheets in it. So, this decomposing mass of garbage was left without collection, again turning into a health hazard.

Now to my fourth issue, in the form of a query. Are the municipalities working with the public health instructors on this initiative? Or are we now going to have problems with the public health inspectors for not having disposed of our garbage properly?

My suggestions to the municipalities are these:

1. Firstly, bombard the public with detailed information to help them with segregation. Use different media to attract different age cohorts. For example, I do not watch TV and prefer the written word; others may want the reverse. The younger generation may respond better to social media.

2. Follow this up with visits to homes, schools and factories to support the efforts of the public (the operative word here is support, not the adversarial manner that public health inspectors use when they come to check on dengue mosquitoes and focus on terrifying residents and domestic aides). Allow for a period of learning.

3. Provide training (repeated) for garbage collectors.

4. Ensure that the flow of garbage collection from site to disposal is thoroughly mapped out in terms of route and timing; and ensure that these times are communicated to the public and adhered to.

The tenets of garbage separation are reducing, recycling and reusing. My suggestion to the public is before you accrue garbage, think about whether you need it. Ask yourself

1. Am I taking from the environment the bare minimum? (Am I reducing use?)

a) Is my cupboard full of clothes that I don’t wear and don’t really need?

b) Do I buy things because I really need them/ just because they are cheap/ because everybody else has them?

c) When I buy things, am I buying unnecessary packaging?

d) When I buy things, am I buying too much plastic? How many ‘sirisiri’ shopping bags, plastic drink/water bottles do I buy a week? Can I cut down on that quantity by using cloth bags/cane or reed baskets/ reusing glass bottles?

2. Am I putting back into the environment the bare minimum of waste? (Am I reducing waste?)

a) Am I using too much paper?

b) Am I using disposable nappies for my baby even when I could be using cloth nappies?

c) Am I collecting waste effectively: i.e., am I separating biodegradable from non-biodegradable waste?

d) Am I using non-biodegradable materials unnecessarily? Am I buying plastic mega bottles when I could buy glass bottles? Am I buying food in rigifoam lunch boxes? Am I using paper and plastic crockery and cutlery instead of ceramic crockery and metal cutlery? Am I using plastic drinking straws?

3. Am I reusing products effectively?

a) Do I throw away envelopes without reusing them?

b) Do I throw away wrapping paper without reusing it?

c) Do I use only one side of the paper and then throw it away?

4. Am I teaching my domestic aides to reduce, recycle and reuse?

This garbage segregation effort is a good one. It is important however, that local government and the Central Environmental Authority join hands to make the process — not only the product — a meaningful, effective one. It is equally incumbent on all of us — the general public — to make every effort to support this venture.

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